In the video game Under a star called Sun, players wake up alone on a spaceship. There are only a handful of things to do: make coffee, water the plants, gaze at the cosmos. While walking through the winding corridors of the ship, you come across a room with a machine that allows you to recreate memories. Suddenly, you’re transported to a pixelated sidewalk, then to brunch, and next to a quiet park. It’s a snapshot of two friends hanging out together on an ordinary August day – a memory, but one that’s liable to fade, to corrupt, as the protagonist puts it, “like a JPEG saved over and over again.”
Under a star called Sun was produced by Melbourne-based graphic designer and zine creator Cecile Richard. Richard explains on Zoom that it’s a response to grief. A friend died in 2019; they loved science fiction, so a year later Richard made a game about a spaceship. She did this using free open source software called Bitsy which, since its release five years ago, has become one of the easiest ways to start creating video games. The tool strips narrative game creation down to its fundamentals – one room, one avatar, one dialogue, all rendered in 8-bit pixel art. You string together a series of rooms or scenes and a narrative begins to emerge. Some people use Bitsy to tell jokes, others to write poems. Under a star called Sun is an elegy — a meditation on loss that lands with an emotional weight that belies its five-minute playtime.
Richard did a handful of other soft, impressionistic sets; intimate but lonely, filled with similar pains of sadness. Endless Scroll shimmers with the blue of staying up late on the internet in the 2000s, chatting with friends via instant messaging. I’m still there bottles up the eerie calm of lockdowns during the pandemic, imagining that we are all ghosts, unable to leave the places we call home. In each of his games, Richard’s writing is taut and beautiful while his visuals convey a strong sense of place. Together, these elements point to worlds far larger than Bitsy is capable of rendering.
Games created using the software, described on its site as a “small editor for small games”, are a notable departure from mainstream titles preoccupied with photorealistic graphics, massive open worlds and complex game mechanics. Unlike the most popular engines, Unreal and Unity, you can’t create any of this in Bitsy. If you load the Bitsy Editor in your web browser, you will see five simple windows, only three of which are used to create a game. The first shows the part you are working on; the second is to design an avatar, objects and the tiles themselves; the third allows you to choose the colors. These limitations are one of the main reasons why game makers like Richard felt liberated by the tool. “I get paralyzed quite easily when I can do anything,” she says. “The fact that Bitsy is such a small thing that doesn’t allow you to do everything is helpful, certainly for the type of games I want to make.”
Bitsy was born in late summer 2016 on a shuttle from Seattle to Microsoft’s Redmond campus, an hour-long trip over the sparkling waters of Lake Washington. Adam Le Doux, the creator of the game creation software, used to work as a programmer at Microsoft while working on creative projects in his spare time. But he had hit a brick wall. In an attempt to break that stasis, he decided to try making deliberately self-contained little games on the way to work using his phone. The problem was that no such software existed, so the programmer coded his own over a weekend, fresh for the Monday commute.
This very early version of Bitsy was even more lo-fi than the Le Doux tool eventually released to the public. In order to create a game during his commute without taking out his laptop, Le Doux devised an ingenious “jerry-rigged” setup. While sitting on the bus, he was typing “game data” (grids of letters and numbers representing sprites and parts, as well as text for dialogue) into the notes app on his phone. These notes were synced to Dropbox and a makeshift version of Bitsy read the text files from Dropbox. This iteration of Bitsy then posted the game on his personal website, so that while Le Doux wrote the text file on his phone, he could test the game seamlessly in real time. The impact was immediate. “That tiny little thing unlocked some creativity,” he says.
In response to long commutes, Le Doux’s first project was an ode to his family life, the aptly titled When I come back home. It’s a simple scene – he’s the avatar, his partner Mary Margaret is sleeping on the sofa, and their cat is hungry. The second game of Le Doux, September is halfwaywas a nostalgic hymn to autumn, and its third, In the middle of the night, details when you wake up camping and need to pee. They are all autobiographical, each scene filled with objects that trigger little poetic ruminations. (“Beyond the lamp, all is darkness and quiet,” for example.) Once he created them, Le Doux decided to download the tool from the internet, and then, after a few retweets of Friends of the Seattle game development scene, other Bitsy games began to arrive.
At one point, says Le Doux, “it just started snowballing,” then when he uploaded the tool to the itch.io digital marketplace (think Steam but filled with smaller, weirder games) , the community has grown even more. He began hosting monthly game jams, each centered around a different theme. One of them was foam-focused and included a microscopic deep dive in the cushioned sole of designer and artist Pol Clarissou. Others have organized their own jams, such as writer and curator Emilie Reed. His Bitsy essay jam included Ian Martin’s humorous but heartbreaking interactive test to Stardew Valley most maligned character, Clint. Through a series of scenes, Martin argued that Clint was not an incel but merely misunderstood, underscoring the grossophobia that exists around much of the online discourse about him.
As more and more people got involved – some first-time game creators, others more experienced – Bitsy began to get hacked by the community, arguably the most ambitious of which is the 3D extension of Elkie Nova (despite the extra dimensions, results such as Sleepi Boi can’t sleep retain Bitsy’s characteristic intimacy). Developer Sean LeBlanc maintains a deposit of these hacks, and once Le Doux realized that people wanted to add their own twist to the engine, he made it open-source, a way to allow people to legally build on Bitsy while still future-proofing the engine. tool and its games. This is part of Le Doux’s commitment to “preservation of art” – ensuring that the entire software update process is as transparent as possible. If he ever backs down, that means the community can pick up where he left off.
Reed, who hosted the Bitsy essay jam and writes regularly about video game history, describes Bitsy as a “mass art tool.” Not in the sense that mass art is produced using the software – Bitsy games are still an underground proposition – but in the way it facilitates “everyday forms of creativity”. Reed compares Bitsy games to DIY music, zines, and even karaoke. In one test she wrote on the subject, Reed refers to the writings of art critic Susan Sontag on photography and how the practice became a mass art form in the 1970s, much like “sex and dance”.
When it comes to conversations about the democratization of game creation over the past 10 years – a process that has largely seen the practice spread beyond major video game companies – Unity is often touted as the game engine that led this change (not least because that’s how the company has has been marketed). But, says Reed, tools like Bitsy, Twine, and RPG Creator were equally, if not more, influential. She emphasizes the simplicity of the tool and how “knowledge and techniques are shared” by users (one of the main places where this happens is the Bitsy Discord Server). Like RPG Maker, whose community creates plug-ins, Bitsy is distinctly “editable” software. Reed also points out how quickly and easily Bitsy games can be self-published on a webpage, much like Philomela for games made with Twine.
Each of these aspects helped Bitsy shed the usual baggage associated with making games. You don’t need any formal training to use it, games don’t take months, and there’s no distributable .exe file to unzip at the end of a project. It is therefore not surprising that Bitsy has found itself used in educational contexts with young people. The engine has been showcased at small town libraries and coding events – ranging from Newport, Washington, to Bristol, England – as well as workshops at the UK’s National Videogame Museum. Bitsy allows children and young people to create “fully trained digital games very easily,” says Leah Dungay, head of learning at the National Video Game Museum, on Zoom. “You press play and immediately start moving your character around, then start adding pieces. It’s simple to pick up, and we found it struck a chord with people.
For a number of game creators, Bitsy, alongside Twine, was their first taste of game creation software – now they’re employed professionally as game designers. Companies they work for include Supermassive Games, maker of The Dark Pictures Anthologyand Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, the studio behind the next slice-of-life adventure Dordogne.
That said, Bitsy isn’t just a stepping stone, and treating it as such risks legitimizing professional work over that done using the editor. The beauty of Bitsy is that it allows people to make art on their own terms, to Taipei Metro Questa richly textured reflection on the strangeness of coming home, to There aren’t really any words, a devastating vignette about receiving the worst possible news while doing the dishes. In these games, you can feel the outlines of lived experiences that inform them; they ring true, just like Under a star called Sun. It’s unclear how, if at all, Bitsy will influence games in the future; perhaps we will see an avalanche of autobiographical works.
In a way, it doesn’t really matter. Bitsy’s legacy, in her own words, is already a gift.